By Kelsey Verboom
The provincial government has announced it will keep more of B.C.’s backcountry roads open by no longer deactivating out-of-use resource roads.
Although it will keep more of the industrial-purpose backcountry roads open, hunters, ATV riders, cyclists, hikers, and other users of those roads are now liable for their own safety.
The changes were introduced on June 28th, when the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations announced amendments to the Occupiers Liability Act.
Prior to the amendments, backcountry resource roads were sometimes closed to the public after an industrial user no longer needed the road. Also, road users who were injured or had an accident on the road could file an injury-related lawsuit under common law.
Now, users must provide their own insurance coverage and will be using the roads at their own risk.
Because the previous rules of liability left such a high degree of uncertainty for possible lawsuits, road maintainers and the government were motivated to reduce the public’s exposure to roads by deactivating them, said public affairs officer for the ministry, Brennan Clarke, in an email response.
Now, with personal injury liability on the roads adjusted, the provincial government has committed to no longer deactivate resource roads unless there is a clear environmental reason.
Whereas culverts and bridges were previously removed from out-of-use resource roads, they will now typically be left in place.
“We’ve been trending that way in the past few years anyway, said Steve Jablanczy, resource manager at the ministry branch in Cranbrook. “We’ve realized we don’t have to be quite so harsh when it comes to deactivating roads. Generally, we look to keep them in a useful state.”
However, the rugged backcountry roads will still only be suitable for some uses, and not for every vehicle — or even any vehicle in some cases — stressed Dave Rebagliati, engineering officer with the ministry.
Responsibility for maintaining the roads has not shifted with changes to the Occupiers Liability Act.
“If it was a logging company previously it would be a logging company now. If it was the province before, it’s the province now,” Mr. Clarke confirmed.
In the local area, decisions about which roads will be kept open and which will be deactivated will be done on a case-by-case basis,” Mr. Clarke said.
“It depends on the circumstances. Both government and the maintainer may have a decision-making role regarding access management. This varies depending on which Act the road is administered under.
“For the majority of resource roads, the Forest and Range Practices Act applies and requires a company to maintain a road until they either deactivate it or are relieved from maintenance obligations by the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.”
The provincial budget for road maintenance will not increase with the current changes.
Realistically, backcountry users shouldn’t expect to notice too much of a change locally, Mr. Jablanczy and Mr. Rebagliati said. The potential to see a marked increase in backcountry access via resource roads is there, but “only time will tell,” Mr. Rebagliati said.
The Occupiers Liability Act was originally intended to be part of the Natural Resource Roads Act, a piece of legislation still in the draft phases that will create a management framework for the province’s resource roads. It was “hived off as a standalone item due to liability concerns that needed to be dealt with sooner rather than later,” Mr. Clarke said.
“These changes are an important first step to simplifying the regulations covering B.C.’s vast network of resource roads,” said Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations. “Reducing the possibility of injury-related lawsuits will encourage road maintainers to keep roads open and preserve access to B.C.’s wilderness areas.”
British Columbia has an estimated 450,000 kilometres of resource roads.